Glenn Close says she was a “late bloomer” in the movie business, as she didn’t appear in her first theatrical film until she was in her early 30s.
That was in 1982, when she played Robin Williams’ mother in “The World According to Garp.” And for that performance, she was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar.
Since then, you could say that Close – who has a home on Prouts Neck in Scarborough – has been making up for lost time. In the past three decades, she’s been nominated for six Oscars, including a best actress nod for “Albert Nobbs” this year. During her career, she’s played lawyers, schemers, psychos, a vice president, a man, and lots of other characters that tested and stretched her acting abilities. And she’s done those roles on TV and on the stage as well.
So when she attends the 84th Academy Awards ceremony tonight in Los Angeles, the Connecticut-born Close will not just be vying for her first Oscar win. She’ll be taking another step in a career that potentially places her among the greatest Hollywood actresses of all time.
“When you look at the top 10 actresses of the past 80 years, since sound came in, first you have Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep – but I think Glenn Close is definitely in that list,” said Cari Beauchamp, author of several books on women in film history and who has twice been named an Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“It’s a combination of her guts, in the roles she chooses, and her perseverance. We’re talking about 30 years of nominated performances.”
Close sounds very matter-of-fact when talking about her career, as she did recently from her home on Prouts Neck. She said part of the reason she’s done so many gritty, complex character portrayals is because she hasn’t been offered romantic comedies or fluffy characters over the years.
“I don’t have the body or the face for romantic comedies, so I’ve never been offered those,” said Close, 64.
“The challenge is that a lot of people see you only as your last character, so you’re constantly competing with whatever your last movie was.”
“Albert Nobbs” will be a tough one to top. She not only stars in it – as a woman passing as a man in 19th-century Ireland – she co-wrote the screenplay, co-produced the film, and wrote the lullaby-inspired song that Sinead O’Connor sings over the closing credits.
The film speaks volumes about Close’s resiliency. She played the title role in a stage version of “Albert Nobbs” more than 30 years ago, and bought the film rights to the story 14 years ago.
She had been trying to get it made ever since.
“I’ve never done this much in one film before. I bought the material, I put the team together, I found the money to finance it,” said Close. “The obstacles were like those faced by any indie film that goes way outside of any formula – you’ve got to get people to understand the power of the story. Plus, it was tough for people to envision me as a butler.”
And as a man.
A MAN’S WORLD
“Albert Nobbs” is a focused and detail-filled story about a woman posing as a butler in a Dublin hotel in order to hold down a job during the 1800s. She keeps her head down, puts up with a lot from employers and guests, and saves her money as she dreams of a very different future.
The film has wonderful period details, a stellar Irish and British cast, and a nice mix of harsh reality with bits of whimsy.
To play the title character, Close pitched her voice a little lower, but didn’t really try to act like a man. It was more about acting like a butler and like a person who had something to hide, she said. That’s why her character appears to be mumbling much of the time.
“This is somebody who is not used to talking to people,” she said.
To play a prim Dublin hotel butler, Close had to spend several hours each day getting her hair and makeup prepared. There was a special wig, dental “plumpers” in her mouth to change the shape of her jaw, and makeup applied to the tip of her nose and ears to make both seem bigger.
The work on her face was not so much to make her look more masculine, says Close, but to make her look less like herself. That way she’d be more believable as a man. Close is thrilled that the film was also nominated for an Oscar for makeup.
As for her own chances of getting an Oscar tonight, Close says plainly that she doesn’t believe she has a shot. She thinks Viola Davis of “The Help” will win, thinks her own performance is too subtle, and believes the film has not been seen widely enough to propel her to a victory.
She’s not even writing an acceptance speech in advance.
“I’m amazed and thrilled to be nominated. I honestly don’t think I’ll win,” said Close. “I do try to think about, as much as possible, what I might say and who I would thank, because this has been a journey like no other for me.”
RETREAT IN MAINE
Close’s home overlooking the ocean on Prouts Neck serves as a “retreat, a place to gird your loins.” She came to Maine after meeting her husband, David Shaw, founder of Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook, who owned the home before they were married. The two were wed at the house in 2006.
Close spends as much time as she can on Prouts Neck when she’s not filming a TV show or movie, or performing in a stage play.
“Going away so much to work is not easy, but when you have a place like this to come back to, it helps,” said Close, who tries to take advantage of the area’s recreational opportunities as much as possible. “We’ve all been learning to kite sail, and we try to bike. The cliff walk here is wonderful, too.”
Close grew up in Greenwich, Conn., within commuting distance of New York City. Her father was a doctor who later worked in Africa and rural Wyoming. She said her childhood was spent in the “countryside,” and she and her siblings were always playing games that required imagination.
“I remember pretending a lot. We had a trunk full of puppets, and we were always making up stories,” Close said. “When I was growing up in the ’50s, there were these wonderful iconic Disney films, and that just fed into my love of pretending.”
Close was “particularly affected” by Disney animated classics such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Pinocchio” and “Bambi.” As a parent (of a grown daughter) and an actress, she said she’s thought a lot over the years about how Disney films give children — especially girls — a sense of what it means to be female.
The Disney fairy-tale adaptations are full of darkness and intriguing female characters, especially the villains.
“There is darkness out there in the world, and fairy tales explore that,” said Close. “That’s why when they asked me to play Cruella de Vil (in the live-action version of Disney’s ’101 Dalmations’), I was thrilled.”
Close lived in Africa for a while as a teenager while her father practiced medicine there. She graduated from William & Mary College in Virginia in 1974 with a degree in drama and anthropology. She worked on Broadway and in TV in the 1970s before landing a role in “The World According to Garp.”
She followed that up with an incredible string of four more Oscar nominations over the six years. She got best supporting actress nominations for “The Big Chill” (1983) and “The Natural” (1984), followed by best actress nominations for “Fatal Attraction” (1987; regarded as one of best villain portrayals ever) and “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988).
TAKING ON MEATY ROLES
While she’s had a slew of interesting and challenging roles since the late 1980s, Close didn’t have another Oscar nomination until “Albert Nobbs.”
The other three acting legends who Beauchamp says are the at the top of the all-time Hollywood actress list were all nominated in almost each decade of their career.
Davis had 11 nominations and two wins, with at least one nomination per decade from 1935 through 1963. Hepburn had 12 nominations and four wins, with nominations in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’80s. Streep has had a staggering 17 Oscar nominations, and two wins, between 1979 and this year (she’s nominated for best actress for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady”).
Although Close’s numbers fall short by comparison — six Oscar nominations and no wins — she has other items on her resume that help cement her legacy, including two recent Emmy awards for the cable TV show “Damages.” She’s also had recurring roles in the TV dramas “The Shield” (2005) and “The West Wing” (2004), and has continued to get critical raves for theater work.
She’s won three Tony Awards, including best actress for “Sunset Boulevard” in 1995, and was given a Career Achievement Award earlier this year at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in California.
“Frankly, she’s taken roles that are more challenging than a lot of other people,” said Beauchamp. “I was at (the Palm Springs International Film Festival) last month, which is basically the gateway to the Oscars, and the creme de la creme of Hollywood was there.
“But Glenn Close got the loudest and longest applause.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: